A Chilly Winter Climb Up Stone Mountain

I spent the better part of Sunday hiking one of the most popular mountains in the Carolinas, Stone Mountain. Located just past Appalachian State University, this sky-topper sits in the quiet region of Roaring Gap, just another mountain town in central North Carolina. I’ve hiked it probably a dozen times before in the past decade, but this time was particularly special.

The trail loop I took consisted of about 6 miles of dirt, rock and pine, but only the 4th mile of it gets you to the summit, better known as “what you came for.” There’s some beautiful scenery along the way, and if you’re as much a nature enthusiast and outdoorsman as myself, I think you’ll get a kick out of it all.

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Even when you first get to the parking lot, which is really, really far out of the way in terms of being close to gas stations, towns, or stores, there’s wild deer and all sorts of animals to see the second you step out of the car. It’s a great tone-setter for the “disconnect” experience you’re about to get.

Speaking of disconnect, your phone stops working about a half mile up the road from where you came. In a completely sincere way, awesome.

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After about a quarter mile of leaf-covered trails, which brings you deeper to the mountain’s base, you come across the park’s main waterfall. It has a drop that is hundreds of meters down, but like the mountain (which you’ll see later) has a granite-like slope that’s largely stone. It’s smooth from the years and years of rainfall and waterflow, and it stays iced over well into the late spring.

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The base of the waterfall collects in a pool no bigger than roughly two or three backyard family pools, but spreads out into a multitude of streams that careen throughout the park for miles. This creates other smaller falls, which you’ll see later.

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Stone is home to some of the most beautiful forestry this side of the south. These walkways can stretch for nearly half a mile before taking a turn, showing you a waterfall, becoming hilly, and going back to long stretches of leafy walkways once again. Also, it’s the second most quiet place you’ll find on the mountain. For the first most quiet, keep scrolling.

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These streams may look shallow, but they’re actually known to be filled with mud pockets that can sink 2-3 feet deep, so it’s wise to always step on rocks (like you did as a kid when you crossed a stream). I was carrying a banjo in my pack, so I had to choose my steps just as carefully, but you get a rhythm when you’ve visited this place enough.

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Another miniature fall courtesy of the mother waterfall from earlier. This is about 2 miles away down the trail.

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As you hit about your 3rd mile in the trail, after walking through wooded areas for as long as you chose to walk 3 miles, you suddenly catch a glimpse of the monstrous Stone mountain.

Make no mistake. It’s gargantuan, and it towers over the entire park. It’s awesome.

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Located after the reveal of the base of the mountain is a small cabin that was built and owned by a appalachian family decades ago. It’s been refined and restored, but I didn’t take any pictures of it this go-around — I was mostly there for the hike. But if you visit, it’s worth checking out and revisiting a home-built-style America we lost a long time ago.

But this is what you see immediately following the open field view of the mountain and the cabin: a far narrower, slightly more strenuous trail that leads you to the mountain’s real base: where the climbing really begins.

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The closer you get the mountain, and the higher you get, the icier it gets — especially in these winter months. Snow and ice will stick around for weeks following winter, and it is THICK.

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Very thick.

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After that portion of the trail, you begin your ascent to the mountaintop. It’s the most strenuous full-body workout you’ll have that week, guaranteed. But to help prepare your soul, there’s a small token of encouragement graffiti’d on the rock at the trail head.

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This is about 1/4 mile up the mountain. The incline is steep, but only beginning. The view is already gorgeous.

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After another mile, you reach the point of stone mountain where the dirt has stopped, and stairs are needed to cross the last quarter mile of stone mountainside. Not only does the stone become very steep, but also intensely slippery. Remember that ice?

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This isn’t even the top. This is atop the first flight of stairs I just showed you. Keep scrolling.

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And then — you’re there. It’s as if you reached the moon after that strenuous quad-burning climb. And you might as well be on the moon, because the top of the mountain is dotted with indents and carvings made by the elements over many years.

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A panorama shot from the first side of the mountain. Most families think this is the summit, and sit for their picnic. Little do they know, the real fireworks are on the other side.

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It’s quite cold up here, still.

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The top. The almighty. The grand poobah. The summit of Stone. Gorgeous is it not?

There’s a term (or saying) for the most beautiful things in life, called a Thin-Place. Put simply, it’s known as places where heaven and earth touch, where God seems more readily present, more easily accessed. A place of serene, unbelievable, undeniable beauty. When you’re on top of Stone, or one of many mountaintops, where the clouds feel like they’re moving just feet above your head, it sure feels like you’re in a thin-place.

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I sat on top of Stone mountain for probably 2 or 3 hours that Sunday afternoon. I studied my bible, listened quietly, and played my banjo. Eventually, other people came along, gave a second glance at my “funny-looking guitar” and joined in for a few rounds of “I’ll Fly Away” and “Cripple Creek.” It’s those moments of closeness and friendship that I think a lot of people don’t get to experience as often as they could (or should), and that’s why I love telling people about these hikes — and why I want to do more of them so badly.

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Then, you begin your descent. And, it doesn’t hurt that it’s also beautiful.

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Stone mountain is great, and you should give it a visit.

And if you hear a banjo in the distance, that means you’re getting close to the summit (and me). Keep hiking.

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